While most of the Navy SEALs court-martial story will play out in 2010, it has still been significant enough to make 2009’s top-10 list. 

Three Navy SEALs who captured the terrorist leader Ahmed Hashim Abed were offered NJP for events that allegedly occurred in Iraq after Abed was in detention.  One of the SEALs — SO2 McCabe — was charged with assaulting Abed by punching him in the stomach.  SO2 McCabe is also charged with making a false official statement by telling an NCIS agent that he didn’t assault Abed or see anyone else assault Abed.  Finally, SO2 McCabe is charged wtih willful dereliction of duty by failing to safeguard a detainee.  SO2 Keefe is charged with a similar dereliction charge and spec and making a false official statement by telling an NCIS agent that he didn’t see anyone assault or abuse Abed.  SO1 Huertas is charged with a similar dereliction charge and spec, making a false official statement by telling an NCIS agent that he didn’t see anyone “display aggressive behavior toward” Abed, and an Article 134 offense of wrongfully endeavording to impede an investigation.

All three refused NJP.  The Commanding General of Special Operations Command Central then referred all three cases to special courts-martial.  Then all hell broke loose.  Fox News reported the story and it’s been featured prominently in conservative media outlets and blogs.  Two groups of House members sent letters to Secretary of Defense Gates and Major General Cleveland — the convening authority — asking that charges be dropped.  A protest was also held outside Naval Station Norfolk, where the three are being prosecuted.  And in response to a question from CNSNews, White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs indicated that President Obama won’t intervene in the cases.

All three SEALs have now been arraigned, with our friend LCDR Jason Grover serving as a TC.  All three are represented by civilian defense counsel along with Navy defense counsel.  The trial counsel have reportedly told the defense counsel that Abed won’t be produced as a witness at the court-martial proceedings.

Two of the cases are reportedly set for trial in January — though we certainly won’t be surprised to see those trial dates pushed back — while SO2 Keefe’s is set for 6 April.

This case is certainly influencing the public’s perception of the military justice system.  It also represents an interesting intersection between the military justice system and our elected representatives.  And it’s a study in the effects of media coverage on the military justice system.  It calls to mind the case of First Lieutenant Kelly Flinn, who ultimately avoided a court-martial due in large part to Frank Spinner’s deft public relations campaign. That campaign, in turn, led Colonel Morris Davis — who would later serve as the military commission system’s chief prosecutor — to write this article in the Air & Space Power Journal calling for the military to be more proactive in its engagement with the media in military justice matters to rebut — and even preempt — p.r. campaigns like Frank Spinner’s in the Flinn case.  So far, SOCCENT doesn’t seem to be following Colonel Davis’s advice; its public comments on the case have been fairly tepid.  (See, e.g,, here.)  Of course, many would argue that the military shouldn’t follow Col Davis’s advice.  But there’s certainly a cost to be paid by ceding the p.r. field to the defense — and the government may well pay that cost in these cases.

The SEALs cases will no doubt teach us a consirable amount about the military justice system and how to influence it both within and outside the courtroom.  That makes it one of the year’s top 10 military justice stories–and probably one of 2010’s top 10 military justice stories as well.

10 Responses to “Top 10 military justice stories of 2009–#8: The Navy SEALs courts-martial”

  1. Jirvin says:

    Jan 19 Nation Wide Support Rallies planned to show support from these 3 Navy SEALs. Find out more at: http://www.SupportOurSEALs.com

  2. Southern Defense Counsel says:

    While I agree that this is a sensational story that has put the military justice system in the limelight, were it not for the media circus I would take issue with this case being a Top Ten…

  3. Mike "No Man" Navarre says:

    SDC-with all due respect (said Ricky Bobby), saying that this doesn’t deserve the Top 10 without the media circus is a bit like saying the Michael Jackson story isn’t a Top 10 story of 2009 without that whole dying thing.

  4. Southern Defense Counsel says:

    No Man,

    Touche. Rather than try to explain my reasoning for posting the comment I retract it. (Where’s that damned retract button?)

  5. anon says:

    No Man,

    Are you suggesting that MJ would have been a top 10 story in 2009 if he never died?

  6. Phil Cave says:

    SDC I think you are correct. And for the very reasons that Dwight puts this in the Top 10. This is not just a media circus but a politician’s circus. We have politicians demanding a result; see also Congressman Murtha for prosecution; see also any number of past or recent congressional attempts to intrude on a commanders discretion and politicize the process and or results. The media circus doesn’t help and adds to the litigation by media and congress.
    (And I wouldn’t place Michael Jackson in the Top 10 either. Although to do so would reinforce my thought that’s it’s all about entertainment while Rome burns and Caesar provides games.)

  7. Anonymous says:

    I call NG verdicts for 2 and a slap on the wrist (reduction and/or reprimand) for the one who (allegedly) struck the detainee.

    Everyone will continue to complain long into 2011….either that their prosecution was a sign that America doesn’t treat Soldiers right or that the outcome was a sign that America shields Soldiers from justice.
    Hopefully the politicians that felt like interfering with the case will highlight their efforts in their re-election bids, and they will suffer the worst outcome of all.

  8. Anonymous says:

    http://www.dailypress.com/news/dp-local_response_1231dec31,0,2061526.story

    It appears the convening authority relied on more than just the word of the detainee in determining there was sufficient evidence to refer the case to trial.

  9. dreadnaught says:

    If the issue is that the CA has lost the special trust and confidence in SEALs, at least the two charged with FOS, why not just pull their security clearances? No involved criminal procedures. This also sends the message that dishonesty will not be tolerated. Just an idea.

  10. Anonymous says:

    Dreadnaught:

    I agree and that would also result in the loss of their tridents. Force convert them and let them serve the remainder of their enlistments in the galley.